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Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed. Here’s how.

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This week a violent mob mounted the biggest attack on the Capitol, the seat of American democracy, in more than 200 years, driven by the false belief that the presidential election had been stolen. The chief author of that claim was President Donald Trump, but the mob’s readiness to believe it was in large part a product of the attention economy that modern technology has created.

News feeds on Facebook or Twitter operate on a business model of commodifying the attention of billions of people per day, sorting tweets, posts, and groups to determine which get the most engagement (clicks, views, and shares)—what gets the strongest emotional reactions. These commodifying attention platforms have warped the collective psyche. They have led to narrower and crazier views of the world.

YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which determine 70% of daily watch time for billions of people, “suggest” what are meant to be similar videos but actually drive viewers to more extreme, more negative, or more conspiratorial content because that’s what keeps them on their screens longer. For years, YouTube recommended “thinspiration”—anorexia-promoting videos—to teen girls who watched videos about “dieting.” And when people watched science videos of NASA’s moon landing, YouTube recommended videos about the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. It did this hundreds of millions of times. News feeds and recommendation systems like this have created a downward spiral of negativity and paranoia, slowly decoupling billions of people’s perception of reality from reality itself.

Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.

Shifting systems to protect attention

E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.

Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.

At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.

These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.

Working toward collective action

We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.

Recently at the Center for Humane Technology, we interviewed Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (2010–2016), for our podcast Your Undivided Attention. She was responsible for the “collaborative diplomacy” that led to the Paris Agreement, and we learned how she was able to do this—to get 195 different countries, against all odds, to make shared, good-faith resolutions toward addressing climate change. Figueres initially didn’t believe it was possible to get that many countries to agree, but she realized that successfully hosting the Paris Convention meant she herself would have to change. She had to genuinely believe it was possible to get the countries to commit to climate action. That was how she was able to then focus on getting the participating countries to believe in the possibility of addressing climate change as well. Where earlier international climate negotiations had failed, Figueres’s efforts brought nations together to agree on financing, new technologies, and other tools to keep global temperature rise below 2 or, even better, 1.5 °C.

In the case of the tech industry, we have a head start in that we don’t need to convince hundreds of countries or millions of people. Fewer than 10 people run the 21st century’s most powerful digital infrastructure—the so-called FAANG companies, comprising Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (formerly Google). If those individuals got together and agreed that maximizing shareholder profit was no longer the common aim, the digital infrastructure could be different. If Christiana Figueres could bring about consensus between 195 nations, we could consider the possibility of doing it with 10 tech CEOs.

A new economics of humane technology

Several economic principles need to shift in order for technology to align with humanity and the planet. One of these is the growth paradigm. You simply can’t carry out a logic of infinite growth on a finite substrate. The drive for infinite economic growth is leading to a planetary ecological crisis. For tech companies, pursuing the infinite growth of extracted human attention leads to a similar crisis of global consciousness and social well-being. We need to shift to a post-growth attention economy that places mental health and well-being at the center of our desired outcomes.

Several economic principles need to shift in order for technology to align with humanity and the planet.

A small hint of this shift is taking place in countries including New Zealand and Scotland, where organizations such as the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are working to shift from an economy that promotes the gross domestic product (GDP) to one with these alternative priorities. Leaders are asking how well-being can inform public understanding of policies and political choices, guide decisions, and become a new foundation for economic thinking and practice.

Another shift toward a more humane technology requires a broader array of stakeholders who can create accountability for the long-term social impact of our actions. Right now, it is possible for large technology companies to make money by selling thinner and thinner “fake” slices of attention—selling fake clicks from fake sources of news to fake advertisers. These companies make money even if what the link or article leads to is egregiously wrong and propagates misinformation. This opportunism debases the information ecology by destroying our capacity to trust sources of knowledge or share beliefs about what is true, which in turn destroys our capacity for good decision making. The result is polarization, misinformation, and the breakdown of democratic citizenship. We need to create mechanisms that incentivize participants in the digital world to consider longer time frames and the broader impact their actions are having on society.

Human will plays an important role here. What if the leaders behind Apple’s App Store revenue distribution model—which acts as the central bank or Federal Reserve of the attention economy—simply chose to distribute revenue to app makers based not on whose users bought the most virtual goods or spent the most time using the app, but on who among the app makers best cooperated with other apps on the phone to help all members of society live more by their values?

Ultimately it comes down to setting the right rules. It is difficult for any one actor to optimize for well-being and alignment with society’s values when other players are still competing for finite resources and power. Without rules and guard rails, the most ruthless actors win. That’s why legislation and policies are necessary, along with the collective will of the people to enact them. The greater meta-crisis is that the democratic processes for creating guard rails operate at a much slower pace than the rate of technological development that is needed to make a difference. Technology will continue to advance faster than the harms can be well understood by 20th-century democratic institutions. The technology sector itself needs to come together, collaboratively, and find ways to operate so that shared societal goals are placed above hyper-competition and profit maximization.

Finally, we need to recognize the massive asymmetric power that technology companies have over individuals and society. They know us better than we know ourselves. Any asymmetric power structure must follow the fiduciary or “duty of care” model exemplified by a good teacher, therapist, doctor, or care worker—that is, it must work in the service of those with less power. It must not operate with a business model based on extraction. Upgraded business models for technology need to be generative: they need to treat us as the customer and not the product, and align with our most deeply held values and humanity.

Toward being human

E.O. Wilson has said, “The problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” We need to embrace our paleolithic emotions in all their fixed weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We need to upgrade our institutions to incorporate more wisdom, prudence, and love. And we need to slow down the development of a godlike technology whose powers go beyond our capacity to steer the direction of the ship we are all on.

The realm of what is possible continues to expand, but it is arising contemporaneously with exponentially challenging global issues that require better information, leadership, and action. Rather than accepting a race to the bottom that downgrades and divides us, we can together create a technology landscape that enables a race to the top—one that supports our interconnection, civility, and deep brilliance. Change, I believe, is humanly possible.

Tristan Harris is cofounder and president of the Center for Humane Technology. This essay is an adapted excerpt from The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis, to be published on January 26, 2021, by Cascade Books. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

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Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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